Wrongful Death in Jail: Getting Answers When No One Wants to Tell

When seeking answers about a wrongful death in jail, the answers don’t always come easy.  A case handled by Budge & Heipt illustrates this point.

Late one Friday afternoon, a man was arrested by county police officers as he was getting off a bus near the town of Lahaina, Hawaii. Officers brought the man to a holding cell at the police station. Because the weekend was coming up, the man was not taken to jail. Instead, he was held for the weekend in the holding cell of the police station. On Monday morning, when officers went in the cell to take the man to jail, the man was dead.

His parents received the call at their home in Arizona. Their son was dead. No explanation was given. And despite their best efforts, no explanation was provided. Police were tight-lipped. No one was talking. Despite the parents’ efforts, little information was provided. The parents traveled to Hawaii in a quest for answers. But still, despite their questions, their son’s death remained a mystery.

Unfortunately, this is a scenario that happens all too often in America. Without an experienced lawyer to investigate an in-custody death and demand answers, family members often hit a brick wall in their quest for information concerning a wrongful death in jail. The parents of the man described above turned to the attorneys at Budge & Heipt to seek answers.

Our first step in our effort to gather information was to ask forcefully, taking advantage of the state’s freedom of information laws. A well-written letter to the right person, from an experienced lawyer, demanding information and citing the applicable state statutes will often result in a “foot in the door” and at least enough information to answer some initial questions. In the case described above, we were able to learn enough through police reports and videotapes to arouse our suspicion that police had failed to properly monitor the man during his time in custody.

This led to a formal lawsuit for wrongful death in jail, which further opened the door to information. Once a lawsuit was filed, we were able to take full advantage of the court rules to demand documentary evidence and internal files, and even take depositions of the involved officers—where we were permitted to ask them questions under oath about what occurred. Of course, the county did not produce all the information willingly. To get it all, we filed a motion with the judge, requesting a court order that internal disciplinary records be turned over to us. The judge gave that order and required that the documents be given to us. These revealed that the officers had been disciplined by their chief in connection with the events.

Indeed, the picture that emerged was one of total neglect. The man, a homeless alcoholic, was placed in the cell and not properly monitored. Because no one was properly watching the man, it took the county workers more than 24 hours to discover that he had died. While the cause of his death was debatable, there was little doubt that the people charged with monitoring him simply failed to do their jobs. A jury found that the county employees acted negligently. Sometimes, getting answers from the police or a jail about what led up to a loved one’s death requires much more than just asking nicely.

Edwin Budge has been representing clients in civil rights cases for more than 20 years. He focuses his energy and passion into seeking justice in cases involving abuse or neglect or wrongful death in jail or prison. Contact Budge & Heipt for a free consultation.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.